Sense and Nonsense: Social Justice?

“Social justice” can be a dangerous phrase. How so? Justice is to render each his due. Justice is always in motion from an inner source, but never complete or automatic. Classically, justice is a moral, practical virtue. I must acquire it and practice it toward others. No one can make me just. I can always choose to be unjust. Since justice already means “related to others,” why add the “social”?

In modern philosophy, social justice derives from Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. It doesn’t have the same meaning found in Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, or Aquinas, for whom justice was a personally acquired habit. It existed only in its practice. In a just polity, citizens freely practiced acquired virtues with respect to others.

Depending on whether its citizenry is just or unjust, a polity designs its political institutions to accomplish the end by which its people choose to live. In an unjust regime, citizens do not practice justice toward others. Aristotle’s analysis of regimes accounted for the different institutions that fostered these ends. Because of the difficulty of acquiring virtue, a good regime was unlikely to last.

The origins of social justice lie in Machiavelli’s rejection of the possibility of virtue. He lowered moral sights to achieve, as he thought, the most workable regime. He wanted to establish a regime of success, not virtue, a regime free of the “restrictions” of virtue. From Hobbes to Kant, the question was how to erect a just—i.e., successful—regime, one that keeps power, but without the personal practice of virtue. A good regime meant not that individuals are just but that the laws are just. Whatever the laws, if citizens obeyed—usually by force— they would be prosperous, happy, and peaceful. Law was will.


Modern political philosophy constructed constitutions and laws as devices to secure contentment apart from the inner moral order of the citizens measured by objective standards. Citizens would be made to be happy or free, wherein happiness or freedom implied nothing about moral or theological virtue. A good regime could be one in which widespread vices, measured by classical standards, were both prevalent and justified. What positive law commanded is by definition good and right. What we have a right to is what the law allows, whatever it is.

Following Hobbes, citizens of regimes of social justice had no duties, only rights, a word by no means neutral. Citizens were not responsible for doing anything. They were entitled to receive whatever the law granted to them. In practice, the principal virtue of the rights-state is compassion, the virtue capable of overturning each natural law norm. The state defines what right is owed to everyone. If I do not have what I am entitled to by right, I am a victim of society. It is responsible for my condition.

The best modern social-justice states guarantee that I have all my rights, themselves wholly defined by law. I am taken care of, but not by myself or others through virtuous acts, particularly personal acts of justice, friendship, and charity. To conceive justice as an ideal set of institutions waiting to be established so that everyone would be taken care of is a latent form of totalitarianism.

If by the phrase “working for social justice” we mean that we are seeking to erect a regime in which everyone else, especially the poor, will be provided for by our structurally oriented efforts, we will mistake what justice signifies. Justice cannot be automatically acquired outside of ourselves. Its acquisition includes the intellectual and moral virtues in their proper sense. We cannot help others unless we understand what virtue is and how to acquire it. A modern social-justice regime obviates any real relation—be it of justice, charity, or friendship—of one person to another.

Fr. James V. Schall


The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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